Posts Tagged ‘research’

I’ve had a busy few months with moving and changing jobs, so a lot of my mail has been waylaid. I dropped by the old research facility this past weekend and found that I had some mail waiting for me, including the September issue of Lab Animal.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but my favourite part of the magazine is the “protocol review” section. There are always good ethical issues being raised (though I don’t always agree with the conclusions of the people who write in!) This month was no exception.

The article describes a researcher who submits a protocol to his local animal committee for review. His protocol involved the testing of a drug which prevents hearing loss associated with age. The animal committee suggested the researcher use the same animal for both testing and control (ie. drug in one ear, saline in the other) as this would reduce the numbers of animals required by half. The researcher complied, and had good results from his preliminary study. So he submitted a grant application to the NIH, using a similar study design. However, the NIH argued that he should use separate animals for control and treatment because the drug could have migrated through the blood stream from one ear to the other, thus affecting the “control” ear. The animal care committee still argued for using the same animals for both control and treatment. So what does the researcher do?

The answers given in the magazine is the usual mix of scientific righteousness and idealism. The answer favoured by most respondents was that the animal care committee should not be dictating scientific protocol. Ouch. So we should let science, untempered by ethics and humanitarian concerns, run it’s course? I would disagree.

It’s hard to judge the case because not a lot of detail is provided about the study itself. However, it did say that the study looked at whether this drug could improve hearing as animals age. So, instead of having a side by side comparisons, could they have instead quantified the animal’s hearing before administering the drug and then quantified it again after administering the drug? Improvement in hearing could still be detected then. Or, perhaps the drug itself needed to be improved before further experiments. For example, did the investigator know how long the drug could persist before decaying? If it decayed rapidly, it may not even be possible for it to reach the other ear, thus rendering the issue moot. Or, could the drug be applied topically, somehow?



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Today was the annual Terry Fox Run, supporting cancer research, awareness and care. As a general rule, I have very little sympathy for charities. Most support themselves by keeping enough cash flow to pay for their own employment and little else.

Don’t get me wrong – I think Terry Fox himself was courageous and most definitely a local hero – but I think the administrators of the Terry Fox Foundation are greedy and self-serving.

From the Canada Revenue Agency charity listings:
In 2009, the Terry Fox Foundation had:

  • 102 million in assets, held in cash and investments
  • 27 million in donations, interest, and government grants

This is in 2009 alone.  How much did they spend?  Where did they spend it?

  • 3.75 million on fundraising and management
  • 2 million on advertising and other office expence

But what about the research??? What about finding the “cure” for cancer??

  • 1.3 million spent for research funding and grants

Enough said.

Click here to investigate your favourite Canadian charity!

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Yesterday I retweeted a link on “academic prostitution”, which I picked up from @phylogenomics.

The article discusses the “publish or perish” mentality of academic research and notes that scientists are still heavily judged on the length of their publications list. Where Darwin sat on his theory of natural selection for 20-some-odd years, the modern lab insists on regular publications from its grad students and post-docs. Indeed, it’s common to “flush out” a study into multiple smaller papers so as to increase the total count.

And for what purpose? The article reminded me of a similar commentary I read in May’s issue of Lab Animal, where a grad student had the “audacity” to question the relevance of (yet another) study using 200 animals to examine the effects of cigarette smoke. The grad student had the wisdom to ask, “What is the point of doing yet another study on the negative effects of cigarettes? Is it really worth using 200 animals to put another nail in the coffin?” Of course, the commentators routed the British student, suggesting, among other things, that he did not yet understand the American system. Ouch.

Similar, I’d ask more generally – what is the point of any research? Is it actually novel or interesting? The majority of grant money comes from tax dollars, after all. As a taxpayer, am I happy that my money is going to fund this research? Can I be confident that this research will yield noteworthy results or will minor efforts be fluffed up and published to bolster someone’s career?

As the original poster noted, we need better ways of evaluating our scientists and our scientific institutions. That can’t happen until researchers, universities and journals want to work together to produce better science. Until then, as readers, we need to be wary and always ask for quality over quantity.

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As I mentioned a few posts ago, it’s Animal Rights Week (also called World Week for Animals in Laboratories). So far, no news of interest locally, but a quick Google search revealed lots of opinions, lots of facts, and lots of fiction still exist – from both sides.

What is a “right”, exactly? It’s one of those words that gets tossed around and used without a good understanding of what it means. A “right”, most generally, is something that you are entitled to; either someone is obligated to give you something (such as basic health care in Canada) or something that someone is obligated to refrain from doing to you (such as refraining from killing you). The first is a legal right, while the second is a moral right. Moral rights result from moral theory, which involves the idea that morals exist to facilitate cooperative behaviours.

So where does that leave animal rights?

There have been many different moral theories, proposed by many different people. As these theories evolved, a sort of dilemma ensued. To whom do moral rights extend? Some believed that morals were only applicable to beings with consciousness and reason. But then, we have another dilemma – what about babies and the mentally ill? Clearly we can’t without rights from these groups. And so this presents another dilemma – If we extend moral rights to babies, who clearly cannot reason and cannot understand the idea of self or existence, what does this say about animals?

This is a favourite quote of mine, from philosopher Jeremy Bentham:

“…Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? …A full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but, “Can they suffer?”… “

In this context, the evolution of animal rights was a natural progression from discussions of moral rights in human society. And I do not disagree with this line of reasoning at all. To allow suffering when you can prevent it is inhumane.

The sticky parts come when you consider science. In many ways, science uses the Utilitarian philosophy (ironically, also formulated by Bentham and later refined by John Stuart Mills). Utilitarianism suggests that in any decision, the correct action would be the one which causes the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. It is sometimes referred to as the “cost-benefit analysis”.

So science could reason something like the following: (1) Disease and suffering in humans is bad (2) Suffering in animals is bad (3) But disease and suffering in humans could be alleviated through (4) So we should accept some suffering in animals in order to alleviating a lot of suffering in humans.

Of course, it’s not a perfect explanation and in this small space, I do leave out a lot of important points. [Msg me if interested!]

For me, I find it hard to reconcile many parts of science. I agree with the need for science to progress, but I also feel very strongly about the need to proceed ethically. Good science is necessary and bad science should be condemned. How do we know what is good science? How do we know that the suffering in animals we cause today will actually result in a usable treatment for humans in the future? We can’t always predict this, but I believe that there are lots of things we can do to move forward both morally and scientifically. This could involve many things but I will suggest a few key points:

Does the study actually need to use animals? This is a big one that bugs me. Science is competitive, especially at the graduate student level. It sucks to say it, but many students are under the impression that a good paper must include animal experiments (as well as a long list of other things, like bioinformatics). Many people I have worked with never intended on working with animals as part of their careers. But the industry demands it as part of a “complete” paper. While I agree that results need to eventually be verified in an animal study, such as when it involves pharmaceuticals or treatment of human health, I think that it’s ridiculous to use animals in a study where you barely understand the biochemistry behind the system. Gobs of tissue culture first, animals last!

How many animals do you actually need?
This one bugs me too. There is no need to breed dozens of animals if you only need 10, that’s just wasteful. A careful, well thought out colony management plan will help ensure that only the necessary numbers of animals will be produced.

And lastly: Treat the animals well. Keep them in semi-natural settings. Give them enrichment. Make sure they are not in discomfort. A happy, healthy animal will give more accurate results than one that is miserable. And with better results, less animals are needed overall. I get so angry when I see researchers using incorrect suture sizes or giving the equivalent of Tylenol to a post-surgical animal – these are the researchers that should be prevented from using animals. EVER.

In the end, I do think it’s important to have times such as the Animal Rights week. It puts an important issue in the public eye, and no harm can come of that. Well thought out, constructive, educated opinions will do a lot to improve the industry and I think that is what most people, myself included, would want.

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When I was an undergrad I volunteered the natural history museum on campus.  Now at the time, calling it a museum was a bit of a stretch.  It was an amazing collection of specimens, no one would deny that, but they were all housed in locked cupboards in the recesses of the old biology building.  Worse, they were not even housed on the same floor or even the same wing.  There were fish specimens in the basement, birds and bugs on the top floor… No one knew about them!

I was introduced to the museum during a class on biodiversity, from Dr. Wayne Maddison.  He introduced the class to Dr. Rex Kenner, who ran the vertebrate museum.  Rex showed the class examples of endangered species, extinct species, beautiful animal pelts, exotic insects… It only took one visit to the museum, and I signed up to be a volunteer.

To be accurate, UBC has more than one natural history museum collection – there’s a vertebrate collection, a bug collection, a fossil collection… and so on and so forth.  Rex was in charge of the vertebrate collection.  He was a bit of a bird hobbyist, so my role in the museum was to help prepare bird specimens.  Taxidermy!

From Rex, I learned how to take a dead, bird – usually one who met an unfortunate fate, like flying into a window – and create a specimen which could be used indefinitely for research and for teaching.  Until I became a volunteer, I had no idea that museum archives could be used for research.  But over the course of my time in the museum, I would often see grad students taking measurements, photos, and sometimes samples.

Taxidermy isn’t for the faint of heart, certainly, and I won’t go into the details here.  But I was fortunate enough to work with many beautiful species of birds – everything from Stellar’s Jays to owls to little thrushes.  I was able to hold in my hand a representation of so many species which I never would have seen up close.  Without the museum, I never would have been able to pull back the wing to see the iridescence feathers, nor examined an owl to find it’s “ears”.  And, thanks to the museum, other students and researchers will be able to see, hold and use these specimens as part of their studies and research.

Most exciting is the upcoming public opening of the new Beaty Biodiversity Museum which will finally house these collections!  Gone are the dusty corridors of the old biology building – they are demolishing it even now.

It will be a bittersweet event for me.  For several weeks now, I had planned to visit Rex and extend my congratulations on the move to the new museum.  But I kept putting it off, thinking that I would have all the time in the world.  I received an email a few days ago from his assistant.  Dr. Rex Kenner passed away the previous weekend, only weeks before the museum would have opened to the public.

I’d like to thank him, even if it is a bit late, for all his hard work and dedication to maintaining and promoting the collections.

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